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Cultural Miasma

Unequal Footing

by Lila Templin

Navigating Oberlin’s latent culture of wealth.

by Lila Templin | Cultural Miasma | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

Navigating Oberlin’s latent culture of wealth.


I was nine when I was first thrown into the world of wealth—and realized I didn’t belong. I had a playdate with a classmate, a pushy, awkward girl who evened out my quiet, introverted qualities. We spent recesses drawing Warrior Cats with crayons or sitting very still to try and see one of the rabbits that lurked on the edges of school grounds. When she’d suggested the playdate, she insisted I come to her house, and since she was the pushy one, I obliged. She lived in the hills of western Massachusetts, and my mom had to drive me over an hour through the woods until we finally found her mile-long private driveway. As her house slowly rolled into view, I thought I was looking at a statue or moder art piece instead of a home. “Jesus,” my mom whispered as she put the car in park.

It was the true kind of modern mansion—the kind that didn’t look like a mansion at all. Only two stories tall but wide and sprawling, with glass walls and a roof that only slanted one way, like a very expensive mistake. I thought it was ugly, but I was also keenly aware of its difference from my house, or any other house I had ever seen. I could sense, quickly, that this difference was deeper than just the architecture. 

My friend came out to greet me and bring me inside. She had the attic all to herself. The basement was her playroom, but she also took over the home theater when she wanted to. She owned more Barbies, DVDs, and makeup kits from Claire’s than I could ever fathom one person possessing. When she asked if I wanted a snack, she called for a maid (who had been lurking just out of sight) to make us mac and cheese. I felt small, sitting at the island in the middle of the incredibly expansive kitchen that bled into the living room, dining room, and office. My stool was too tall, my shoes dangling feet above the floor. Suddenly, my friend didn’t seem the way she had at school—at school we were equals, given the same desks and books and toys, the same space to play and work in. School had been a neutral place where I always felt we were on the same footing. Here, she towered above me. I was desperate to run back to my mom’s beat-up minivan by the end of the afternoon. 

“It should’ve been fun,” I explained. “But it was just weird.”

“Maybe she can come to our house next time?” My mom suggested.

“Yeah,” I said, even though I knew that would be worse— I would never want her to be able to compare her life to mine the way I just had, and realize how far below her I was. 

Instead, I continued going to her house. Neither of us had many friends, and I kept giving in to her requests. There were countless weekends my mom drove me through the mountains to the cold and unforgiving house in the woods—but no matter how many times I stepped inside, I was always daunted by the cold tile and vast emptiness. I could never make myself big enough to match the space.

We lost touch when we went to different middle schools. She went on to boarding school, and I went to my county’s performing arts charter. True to the arts, it was a school full of passionate and inspired people that was barely scraping by each year. It accepted students from over 30 towns and there were no requirements for admission, so even though we had a performing arts curriculum, many of the students were just trying to avoid their districts’ public schools. Almost all of the student body were middle class or low-income, so even though I worked all through high school, drove a car that was older than I was, and had to thrift my prom outfits, I still felt I was one of the more privileged students. After all, I was one of the seniors who was expected to go to college, even a private one—even, through a miracle of financial aid, a school as expensive as Oberlin. 

***

Oberlin, like elementary school, was supposed to be a neutral space. We were all given the same dorms, classes, food—equal footing. This, of course, was a farce, but I wouldn’t realize it at first. Everything and everyone at Oberlin looked cheap, but was apparently worth quite a lot. I already knew the things—the dinged-up dorm rooms, the classroom chairs with sinking bottoms, the rubbery dining hall meals—had to be expensive, because I saw the bill for them. Slowly, I realized that the people were worth quite a lot, too. Oberlin students were obsessed with looking thrifted, gave themselves messy haircuts, wore shoes with tearing soles, and of course lectured at any given chance about the importance of redistributing wealth. But while presenting themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, as cheap, their wealth was impossible to hide.

In my first month I was eating lunch in the center of campus with a new acquaintance. It was one of those “testing the waters” moments that define the beginning of college. We both smiled too much and made safe jokes, unsure of who we really were or if we would like each other in a week. About halfway through my salad, as we talked about how we were liking Oberlin, I joked, “Thank God for financial aid.” It was a phrase I threw around so often at home, with my family and friends. My lunch-mate gave a forced chuckle—clearly the joke did not land. But instead of moving on from it, they paused, taking on a very solemn expression.

“I… actually have to tell you something,” they said. “I’m not on financial aid. It just felt wrong to laugh about it.” 

They said it with seriousness, and a nervous edge in their voice, as if they were coming out to me and unsure how I’d respond, as if they were revealing some deep and shameful part of themselves. But I was the one who burned with sudden embarrassment. 

“Oh yeah, haha,” I laughed, desperately trying to return to the light atmosphere we had been so carefully curating just moments before. I almost wanted to say, “Me neither!” just to put an end to the moment, but of course I couldn’t. My cheeks flamed, and I checked over my shoulders, both to avoid eye contact and to see if anyone else had seen my humiliation. They mercifully brought up a new topic, and the lunch continued until we both finished our meals and promptly left. I knew we would not become friends. I was careful who I brought up financial aid to after that. 

While direct displays of wealth like that one were not rare, what was worse were the much more frequent occasions when the gap in wealth was addressed more subtly. The girls in my dorm who ordered entirely new spring wardrobes, abandoning their old ones to the free store. The times people told me about the trips they had taken the summer before college, to which I had to tell them I had worked the summer in a sweltering deli with no air conditioning. The people who had brand-new cars, which had been “college gifts” (wasn’t college itself supposed to be the gift?). The time I was put in a five-person English class discussion group where every other student bonded over having gone to boarding school—I obviously had nothing to contribute to the conversation. These incidents were all followed by displays of performative poverty—showing off a funny trinket they had bought at Goodwill, or joking about being a starving artist after graduation. I felt insane listening to two friends debate which form of communism was superior in the living room of a party. I wanted to scream. “I know for a fact you both have trust funds! What are you talking about!” Instead I went to get another drink. 

When it mattered, they didn’t hesitate to use their money: when it came time to buy books for classes, while I scoured the internet for resells; when there was a vintage jacket they just had to spring for; when they wanted to go abroad for Winter Term with no funding. Then, there was suddenly no issue in dipping into that wealth. There were times I was genuinely left out of things, unable to afford a show, get a plane ticket, order an expensive dinner. I felt I had no way to explain this to them without overwhelming embarrassment. To address this fundamental difference between us would be to shatter the illusion that we were equals—after all, we were at the same school, in the same dorms, the same clubs and classes. Oberlin was the same kind of neutral space elementary school had been so long before. The last time I was forced to address the inherent difference between me and my rich peer in the hideous modern mansion, my friendship had never truly recovered. I didn’t want to risk that again.

I discussed all of this with my friends from high school who were now on financial aid at other private colleges—Middlebury, Pomona, Yale.  “It’s so weird,” one of them said when we met for coffee over Thanksgiving break. “It’s like walking through a sea of Canada Goose and Prada.”

I agreed, even though Oberlin wasn’t like that at all. So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. Everything looked so familiar, which made it even harder to realize that I was, in fact, intrinsically different from those around me. I almost wished that they did wear their money with pride instead of trying to hide it. The former was upfront—the latter felt almost like a cruel trick. 

So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness. 

But to complain about it felt privileged and tone-deaf. After all, I was not, by any margin, poor. I had been so lucky to grow up in my lovely little house with my amazing parents who paid for dance lessons and occasional big vacations. I was aware of the financial toll that an unexpected medical issue would take, but never worried where I’d find my next meal. If the Oberlin experience was difficult for me, I couldn’t imagine how it would be for a person below the poverty line. To weep as if my life was so hard because my family wasn’t well-off enough made me no better than the other well-off students who performed poverty. Still, insecurity slowly bubbled up in me over the course of a semester, and I couldn’t rationalize it away. 

***

“It’s not that I feel out of place,” I told my mom over the phone—my mom, who was spending such an unbelievable amount of money, even after financial aid, to help pay for my tuition. My mom, who had always told me I would go to college, and that I would love it there. Who hadn’t gotten the chance to go to a school like Oberlin, and had once told me how jealous she was that I got the small liberal arts experience she’d missed. How could I possibly complain to her about this? I finished the sentence, “It’s just weird sometimes.”

That phone call was in the winter of my first year. Within a few months, the supposedly neutral space of Oberlin’s campus was suddenly gone—COVID-19 forced these simmering insecurities into stark light. I once again felt like I had left the playground and was staring at the huge emptiness of my friend’s modern mansion.

It was immediate and obvious, even through a screen. People who were electing to rent Airbnbs with their friends, or whose families were moving to their second homes. The girl who apologized in a Zoom class because she was outside at her family’s beach house, and you could hear the waves in the background. Safety was also, suddenly, very physical, almost tangible. There were people who could afford to stay quarantined, and those who could not. I, along with many of my friends back home, started looking for jobs once it became clear we were not heading back to campus. Some of my Oberlin friends who I mentioned this to said I was being so brave, and that they would never work in-person with these conditions. I had always had a job—I was not being brave, I was just avoiding the pit of guilt in the bottom of my stomach that grew the longer I went without having one. 

I don’t need to explain and don’t want to dwell on how brutal quarantine was. I moved through the end of the spring in a haze, bombing several of my classes. I was miserable with myself and my work, culminating in a full day of sobbing when my final transcript was released. I was wasting the college’s money, my parents’ money, my future self’s money, only to perform like this? I quite literally couldn’t afford to do any worse—we wouldn’t be able to budget an extra semester. 

The summer, like the spring, was a timeless blur, and then, by some miracle of coronavirus safety, I was back in Oberlin in the fall. I podded with my close friends, so I interacted much less with others. Additionally, many richer students hadn’t even bothered coming back for this semester—they were able to find other, better, more expensive options. I did my strange three months of a semester and returned to Massachusetts. I immediately moved out to Boston to find a better job (I ended up being a barista) and to be in a city with better public transportation (since my high school car was long gone). It was a new place where I wasn’t expecting my insecurities to follow me.

Of course, that was naive. I talked to a few other Oberlin students living in apartments and quickly realized—due to their complaints of having too much free time, and the neighborhoods they ended up in—that their parents were paying their rent. Mine never would have offered, and I never would have asked. As I started working, I became jealous. I knew my parents would always be there for me, but I almost wished they would coddle me in this way. Work was hard, and unlike my working friends who were doing it for pocket money, my paychecks were immediately eaten by food and rent. I knew this would be my future, too, while those who were living off of their parents’ money (without having to live in their homes) would continue to do so as well. They would be able to get unpaid internships and move to big cities out of college. It would undeniably lead to different job opportunities, meeting more important people. Their whole lives were shaped by wealth. For the first time, I truly started resenting that mine wasn’t. 

Boston was where the gap between me and my rich friends was the most pronounced. I tried making plans with an old acquaintance who was also attending a private college and on leave in Boston. We decided on coffee. When I asked where, so I could find a bus route, she offered to drive me. 

“I’m fine on the bus,” I insisted. When she didn’t respond I added, as if to prove it to her, “I like it. Gives me time to read.” 

“But why take it if you don’t have to?” 

I was at a loss, for a second. I knew that her car was the better option—it was faster and safer and meant less work for me—but the bus was mine. It was what I took every day, and having it dismissed as such an obvious inconvenience unexpectedly stung. 

“No, I wouldn’t want to make you do that,” I finally said.

She paused before saying, “It would actually make me more comfortable. I just think it would be safer.”

I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that I took the bus almost everyday. That I worked in a café. That I was never going to be up to her standards. Before, I hadn’t been able to afford to meet my rich friends’ criteria for social activities or trips—now I couldn’t meet their criteria for safety.

Instead I just said, “Oh yeah, of course. Thanks.” We never followed through on coffee—maybe because she put together the pieces and realized that I was always going to be a danger. While the barrier between me and my rich peers had once felt unspoken, it was suddenly physical. I was not able to see them, because I could not live like them. I had always felt a bit out of place, but now I felt truly dejected.

***

I love Oberlin, in spite of and because of its weird rich arts students who want to play at going against the grain. I deeply love the friends I’ve made, the classes I’ve taken, and the experiences I’ve had. But the longer I’ve been there, the more out of place I’ve felt. I arrived as a first-year feeling as if I’d found my new home, and then slowly realized that I did not fit in with my new “family.” It’s as if there’s some piece they all have that I’m missing, and won’t ever be able to find. Of course, that piece is money, the culture of wealth. If I hadn’t realized this at Oberlin, I would’ve realized it later, as I entered the job field, as I started looking for a house, as I had children. But to enter Oberlin assuming I was on the same footing as my peers, and have that illusion slowly peeled away, was an especially jarring experience. 

As a kid I was able to overlook the differences between me and my rich classmates. The older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s been to deny, even when I want to. Now, still, I don’t want to address it for fear of seeming rude, lesser, or self-absorbed. But all it’s done is create resentment. I don’t want to be sour towards my peers. I don’t want to wish my parents could give me more. To say so is juvenile. I always thought of college as the transitional space between being a kid and being an adult—and what is more fitting for this transition than facing hard truths? The facade of a neutral space—the playground, the classroom, the campus—has faded. Still, sometimes, I childishly wish I could see it again.